Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Brain Drain

This weekend, my family and I drove 4 hours north to spend some time vacationing. Halfway, at about 2 hours north of where I live and work, a friend of mine from my undergraduate days got a teaching position at a primarily undergraduate institution, so my family and I stopped by for some catching up with my friend’s family. It's really funny how small the world it -- we both were born, raised, and educated in the same big city thousands of miles away, and we end up a light car ride from each other in the vast US of A.

But, if instead of north, I drove east, or south, or south east, within 5 hours in any direction I would hit a town where another one of friends or acquaintances from my undergrad days holds a teaching position.

I am an immigrant from Europe, and I came to the US to do my PhD; I did very well, got a TT position, then tenure. I am not from one of the European countries that Americans perceive as either powerful or as fun/cool/romantic. It's just another country in Europe, most would say of little consequence to the European and global balance of powers.

Actually, some people say that my country's best export products are the smart people. I can tell you that the vast majority of my graduating class of about 40 (I have a BS in a basic "hard" science) is actually scattered throughout the US. Now, I am sure we could have a discussion here of whether us high-tech immigrants are stealing jobs or whether such immigration is good or bad; I think smart people of any background are an asset to any country, and that TT and similar jobs are highly specialized and highly competitive and should be (and are, in the USA at least) open to the best individual globally, but you may disagree... Anyway, I'd rather not engage in that conversation.

What I wanted to write about instead is the impact of this massive "brain drain", the permanent departure of smart and educated people, on the country that invested into their education, typically up to and including a BS degree. Virtually nobody who has had a chance to leave based on intellectual merit has stayed in my country, so the drain is nearly absolute. I can tell you that the impact on a fairly small country like mine is devastating. And it's the country's fault. People leave because it is not possible to become independent of parents, to work in a job that would provide for a person to support a family, or provide enough for scientists to do work relevant on a global scale. I spent several years doing my PhD there, in my home country, with a heavy teaching load, being groomed into a junior faculty position (no TT there) but realized that it was just a joke -- the work I would be doing would never be internationally recognized as top-notch. And I could never afford to start my own family. So I left and started all over in the USA.

There are a couple of thought nuggets here:
How much does one owe one's home country for the schooling? This way the USA gets an expert at the cost of a PhD education alone. Are all of us who have left our countries ungrateful selfish ingrates?
I certainly feel that way occasionally. But I decided that ultimately I only had one life and needed to live it as best I could. I would have loved to have been able to stay in my own country, it just was not possible with enough human and professional dignity. The political system and the system of values are such that education and research are not valued; of most value is a quick buck. People rising are the not quality people...

The second thought point is what I have been seeing in the USA: increasing disregard for science and education. It's not a good trend. I don't know when or if educated Americans will drain into other powerful economies at any significant rate, but what is certain is that countries that have been traditionally supplying a lot of smart people to the US, like China and India, are becoming ever more desirable. Students are returning home to these countries and no longer feeling compelled to stay in the USA. A number of my Indian and Chinese faculty colleagues say that, if present-day opportunities in their home countries had existed when they were starting grad school, they likely would have never left.

I wish my country would take a cue from India and China and do something tangible to keep its educated and driven youth from leaving. But I am not holding my breath, as I know my country and have little faith that the necessary changes in the system of values would change in my lifetime.

But I wish the USA, which I love dearly as the country I have chosen and which has accepted me in return, would stop being so careless about its scientists and engineers -- whether they are imported or homegrown. I have seen this trend of the marginalization of science play out dramatically before and it is not good. The ever shrinking funds for research and education in the USA are hurting everyone's morale, and excellent science does not live without funds or morale. Again, I don't know when or if American scientists may start leaving for better prospects elsewhere; but I am afraid that the USA is no longer universally perceived as the most exciting place in the world to do cutting edge research, and that deters the best international people... The USA may not directly start suffering from brain drain in the next few decades, but the results of vanishing brain influx, and the fact those smart people are now working elsewhere, will become ever more visible.
We could discuss what it will do to the balance of powers in the world, but let's not go into global politics: it's ugly and beyond our sphere of influence. It will mean that some of the best science in the world may forever move away from the second country that I love, and that makes me sad all over again, in a way not unlike the sadness I first started feeling when I realized, some years ago, that my country of birth was hopelessly on a track to self-destruction...

There have been a lot of problems with posting comments yesterday and today (July 5 and 6). I will try to rescue all comments when Blogger stops being temperamental.


GMP said...

There were problems posting comments on this post, so I pulled it down and reposted with a later date. I tried to rescue what I could from comments to the old post.

Dr. Girlfriend said...

The US is home to a few world-class universities, but for the average citizen the undergraduate experience is substandard, expensive, and long. Many programs manage to spit out uneducated graduates after extracting huge amounts of cash over a four year period. Up until grad school the US education system is a sham - except for a few excellent private institutions.

For grad-school, postdoc, and faculty, the US is arguable still the best place to do science. I did my PhD in the US because the funding was very good (both for the science and my salary).

I got my BS courtesy of the British taxpayers, and now I pay taxes to the US government. If Britain was a struggling little country I might feel bad about that, but I am not patriotic and I hate being defined by political and geographical boarders.

What I love about science is the acceptance of international exchange of ideas and people. My graduate program recruited and funded the best applicants it could attract. Over 75% of my graduate program were non-American and not products of the US education system. They did not all remain in the US.

I am a big fan of funding initiatives that encourage international collaboration and exchange. A colleague of mine (an American) did his postdoc in Japan, and as a junior faculty has continued collaborations with his postdoc lab. This has opened up exchange opportunities for grad students and postdocs from both labs.

Countries that do not have as much to offer in the way of science could capitalize on young scientists seeking the kind of learning experiences that comes from living and working in foreign lands.

pika said...

GMP, your country sounds much like my country (I wonder now if it really is? Let's check - do you recognise my nickname as a word with a meaning?). Except that myself and my academic friends from my original country are now scattered around Western Europe and Scandinavia and not in the US. A kind of an intra-European brain drain at work.

thehumanscientist said...

There is no doubt that the marginalisation of science in the US - or anywhere - is unfortunate. However, I do not feel too much concern at the US not being universally perceived as the best country in which to do research. Surely a diversification in the places available to do excellent science can only benefit us? The culture of research may be different between different countries, bringing a greater variety of perspectives to the global enterprise of scientific discovery. Plus, being able to choose to have a successful career in science without having to move far away from home will likely avoid the loss of talented people who may not wish to make that sacrifice. Finally, a little competition for the position of 'best place to do science' wouldn't do any harm.

GMP said...

Dr. G,

Developed countries indeed capitalize on people who go abroad and then come back. For instance, I know of a large number of German students who did their PhD or postdoc in the USA, but they have always planned to go back. My country is not like that: they nominally do encourage you to come back, and there are even some incentives but very inadequate; in reality, there is nothing to come back to.

Hi Pika,

I am sorry, "pika" does not have a meaning in my native language...
As for intra-European brain drain, I think it is a generational issue: even from my country, younger people (those who left about 5 years ago or sooner) will overwhelmingly go to Western Europe and Scandinavia. For my generation and older (I left my country of birth more than 10 years ago) USA was invariably the destination. And now I feel ancient! :)


You have a point -- a bit of competition is good. :)

Dr.Girlfriend said...


Actually I meant it the other way around. I for one am up for going doing a stint in a another country, not for the high-level science but for the cultural experience.

When a US-trained scientist does a postdoc in another country they bring with them their scientific expertise, and ideally a bit of funding (there are number of international fellowships and exchange programs). The visitor gets to do some science and hopefully form lasting collaborations. In return they get paid to experience a different culture and language. It is a win-win.

It is not for everyone, but I do not believe I am atypical because I consider such opportunities exciting and worthwhile.

pika said...

GMP: I am sorry, "pika" does not have a meaning in my native language...
Oh well, then our countries are just similar.

I think there have been major changes also in the intra-European high-tech migration. For example, in the years of the Celtic tiger and after the last expansion of EU, which brough 10 new countries (in 2004), Ireland received a number of intra-European immigrants that equaled 10% of its population. A lot of these were high-tech people, because the country started supporting research and innovation as never before. Before that, it had a strictly emmigration trend (Irish going out, to UK/US, noone coming in). This was in stark contrast with other traditionally "popular-among-immigrant" countries, such as Germany, Benelux countries, Denmark, Sweden, UK, etc. So things changed even here, not just with US vs. Europe.

prodigal academic said...

My Dad emigrated to the US from South America for the opportunities in medicine, which didn't really exist in his home country. He had to redo a residency when he got here, but it was worth it to him. One thing he found, even now, is that he could never live in his country of origin, even if it had the same professional opportunities. He told me he is just too used to things working according to publicly known rules (for things like how to get a phone line set up in your house, not more "ingroup" stuff like how to be an academic) and the level of bribery in country of origin is no longer acceptable to him after living in the US. Also the public infrastructure is shockingly poor every time he goes for a visit. I've heard similar things about India (less about China, where the government has invested heavily in infrastructure).

He finds this terribly sad, and he is always hoping that this time, his country of origin will turn the corner and not backslide into the worst stereotypes of Third World living. Even after almost 40 years, he still mourns having to leave even though he loves the US and his life here.

I think the US, which has oscillated between welcoming and isolationist as well as between intellectual and anti-intellectual throughout its history will eventually swing back. When it does, I think it will find it has some competition for the top minds in science, which I agree with thehumanscientist is a good thing (as long as we can avoid ugly Nationalism, Racism, and other forms of Xenophobia while competing).

Anonymous said...

I moved from a small southern European country to the UK five years ago and it was definitely one of the best things I've ever done in my life. My country is not very poor and I could be fairly confident that I'd be able to make a decent living there (my first degree is in medicine). The main problem there, and the issue that makes me so angry even now is the complete lack of meritocracy: abilities and willingness to work for ever is not what is important; do you know the right people? that's it! You can achieve everything. And then of course, no wonder everything is dysfunctional. Science? Let's just forget about it....
And here (UK), with my inadequacies re the language, with a degree from a university noone has ever heard of, I found opportunities I hadn't even dreamed of before, and people who recognize both my abilities and my efforts. No, I don't plan to go back (at least not as long as I'm able to work). I know it may be selfish, but I'm not perfect, and I'm sure if I return, I'll end up similar to the rest. I just don't have the strength to fight against a whole status quo.
Actually, I'm currently considering moving to the US and feel very excited about the prospect!

GMP said...

Anon at 1:00 PM, good luck with your upcoming move to the US!

FrauTech said...

Fascinating. I know this is a bit tangental, but I was listening to a radio program about (illegal) immigration today where a conservative pundit was saying "The people who lose out the most from illegal immigration are the people who are competing for those jobs: americans who haven't graduated high school. If illegal immigrants were coming in and taking college professors jobs, people would be complaining."
Instead we have a very legal immigration system set up for graduate students. I've read elsewhere that the K-12 here is so poor that foreign students have MUCH MUCH better understanding of fundamentals of science and math. That might be why there's no effort to change the system, because if we tried to get more americans into science/math we'd have to fix K-12. So instead they're running our financial systems (harhar).